Reaching Toward Space

His 1935 rocket was a technological tour de force, but Robert H. Goddard hid it from history

The space age arrived on the doorstep of the Smithsonian Institution in the first week of November 1935. It came in the form of a rocket, carefully packed in a long wooden crate, looking more sleek and streamlined than the sputtering craft that would carry Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to the planet Mongo and back at the local Bijou every Saturday afternoon. Measuring 15.375 feet long, 9 inches in diameter and 21.5 inches across the fins, it was covered with a shiny aluminum and stainless steel skin, one quadrant painted red.

The donor, Robert Hutchings Goddard, had consigned his creation to an express company in Roswell, New Mexico, on November 2. "The rocket has been greased inside and out," he explained to Smithsonian officials, "and the nozzle plugged with a shellacked cork." He went on to insist that under no circumstances was his rocket to be exhibited, or even shown, without his permission. Having agreed to those conditions, Frank A. Taylor, curator of the Division of Engineering, reported on November 16 that the new acquisition had been moved into deep storage in a basement corridor of the Smithsonian Castle. There it would remain for more than a decade.

Robert Goddard’s long relationship with the Smithsonian had begun in 1917, when the Institution had provided the young Clark University physics professor with a $5,000 grant to support his earliest experiments in rocketry. Charles G. Abbot, then director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, was intrigued by Goddard’s suggestion that rockets could boost scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere. No one was more pleased than Goddard’s mother. "I think that’s the most wonderful thing I ever heard of," she remarked. "Think of it! You send the Government some typewritten sheets and some pictures, and they send you $1,000, and tell you they are going to send four more."

 The Smithsonian published Goddard’s classic treatise on rocketry, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in 1919. The document was a serious engineering study filled with equations and tabular data designed to prove that existing solid-propellant rockets could carry instruments into space. Though the paper concluded with a remark that it might even be possible to send a multistage rocket to the moon, the author did his best to understate the more sensational aspects of his study.

Goddard’s valiant efforts to preserve his scientific dignity were a dismal failure. The shy professor and his "moon-going rocket" were front-page news from the New York Times to the San Francisco Examiner. A Hollywood agent cabled a request:


Burned, Goddard retreated from the limelight and continued his work in relative secrecy. He achieved a genuine milestone on March 16, 1926, when he sent the world’s first liquid-propellant rocket sputtering aloft to a peak altitude of 41 feet above a Massachusetts cabbage patch. He continued to build, static test, and launch his rockets for the next three years, gaining useful experience in the design and construction of the bits and pieces that make up a rocket.

The steady, comfortable pace of his research was broken on July 17, 1929, when a new rocket left the launch tower with its usual roar and reached an altitude twice as high as that achieved in 1926. As Goddard and his crew were packing up that afternoon, a police car and an ambulance, summoned by neighbors who had been frightened by the noise, appeared on the scene. Goddard was back in the news once more and, in effect, barred from flying his rockets in the area.

But this short-term disappointment opened the door to Goddard’s most fruitful years. He was sitting at his desk on the afternoon of November 22, 1929, when he received a telephone call from the most famous man in America, Charles A. Lindbergh. The flier had noticed an article in the latest issue of Popular Science Monthly detailing Goddard’s work.

The two arranged a meeting the next day. By the end of his visit, Lindbergh’s limited interest had given way to a much grander vision. "I am sure Professor Goddard had no idea how his words set my mind to spinning," the aviator recalled in his autobiography. "A flight to the moon theoretically possible!...Who dared, now, to say anything was impossible!"

Lindbergh communicated his enthusiasm to his friend Harry Guggenheim, son of philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim, who agreed to provide an initial grant of $50,000 to support the effort. Before the project was over, the Guggenheims would spend some $188,500 on Goddard’s work.

The grant enabled Goddard to devote his full attention to rocketry. At the suggestion of a meteorologist, he selected the isolated high-plateau country around Roswell, New Mexico, as the ideal site for testing high-altitude rockets.

In the desert, Goddard could insulate himself from the pressures and the perceived dangers of the outside world. Concerned that rocket builders in other parts of the nation and the world would make use of his work before he could achieve extreme altitudes and publish his research, he trusted no one outside his tiny circle of assistants. Rocketeers all over the world knew his name, but none of them knew much about his technology, or precisely what he had accomplished.

By the spring of 1935, Goddard was concentrating on the development of a gyroscopic control system. "Last Friday we had the best flight we have ever had during the entire research," he reported in a letter to Clark’s president. Still, progress was slow.

At Goddard’s invitation, Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim flew into Roswell on September 22, 1935, hoping to observe a flight. Two trips to the test area resulted in nothing more than a pair of abortive launches. Goddard, Lindbergh recalled, "was as mortified as a parent whose child misbehaves in front of company."

Before leaving Roswell, Lindbergh and Guggenheim urged Goddard to publish a report on his latest experiments and to ensure the preservation of his technology by presenting one of his recent rockets to a museum. After their departure, Goddard wrote to his old friend Charles G. Abbot, now serving as Secretary of the Smithsonian, offering to prepare another report for publication by the Institution and to deposit "one of the complete rockets that we have used in the stabilization development."

Goddard’s workmen spent the next several days reassembling a typical A series vehicle from parts of several surviving rockets, likely including A-5, which had been flown on March 28. "The greatest height reached by these rockets," Goddard wrote, "was somewhat over a mile, and the greatest speed in flight over 700 miles per hour." On November 2, the rocket began its journey to long-term storage at the Smithsonian. There it would remain until after World War II, when it would finally be displayed in the World War I temporary building, the "tin shed" housing many objects that would form the heart of the National Air Museum collection.

The professor and his wife left Roswell in 1942 to work with U.S. Navy and Curtiss-Wright engineers on the development of rocket-assisted takeoff and variable-thrust, liquid-propellant rockets. He died of throat cancer in August 1945, still dreaming of reaching the extreme altitudes.

Goddard was largely forgotten during the flurry of excitement over the German V-2 rocket and the postwar high-altitude rocket tests at White Sands, New Mexico, not very far from Roswell. But the neglect was about to change. The Guggenheims funded a large museum display of Goddard technology, the contents of which eventually entered the Smithsonian collections. The post-Sputnik drive to honor the American rocket pioneer reached its peak when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1959, and the United States government awarded $1 million to the Guggenheim Foundation and Mrs. Goddard for the use of Goddard patents in 1960.

Today, the Goddard A series rocket is in storage, but present plans call for its display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, scheduled to open at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003. Three other Goddard rockets can be seen at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

The brilliant Theodore von Kármán, professor of engineering at Cal Tech, once remarked that there was no direct line from Goddard to modern rocketry. "He is on a branch that died....If he had taken others into his confidence, I think he would have developed workable high-altitude rockets and his achievements would have been greater than they were."

As Charles Lindbergh recognized, however, there are other ways to gauge the achievements of an individual human spirit. "When I see a rocket rising from its pad," Lindbergh wrote in 1974, "I think of how the most fantastic dreams come true, of how dreams have formed into matter and matter into dreams. Then I sense Goddard standing at my side, his human physical substance now ethereal, his dreams substantive....What sunbound astronaut’s experience can equal that of Robert Goddard, whose body stayed on earth while he voyaged through galaxies?"

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